OAE/Fischer, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Composed when he was 17, Mendelssohn's Overture A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826) remains one of the marvels of the classical repertoire.

Composed when he was 17, Mendelssohn's Overture A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826) remains one of the marvels of the classical repertoire. Not only is the handling of form, motion and contrast of mature mastery, but the piece is filled with sounds of dazzling originality: rustlings of strings, pointillistic touches of woodwind - even that uncouth new bass addition to the brass section, the ophicleide, handled with a delicate touch.

Yet scarcely less miraculous was Mendelssohn's recovery of his youthful magic when commissioned to contribute extensive incidental music to an opulent royal-command production of Shakespeare's play in the Schlegel translation at Potsdam in 1843. Of the new music, the Scherzo, the Nocturne and the ubiquitous Wedding March have been classics ever since. But there is much else, some of it comprising brief cues or accompaniment to speech, so that the only way to present it all is within a production, however minimal or truncated, of the play itself.

For this presentation in the South Bank's ongoing series, A Generous Spirit: Mendelssohn the Musician, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment accordingly co-opted a troop of eight actors, led by Martin Turner as Theseus and Oberon, Melanie Jessop as Titania and Hippolyta, and John Paul Connolly as Bottom. And the director Tim Carroll set them cavorting all around the orchestra, often in perilous proximity to the music-stands. The dry acoustics of a packed-out Festival Hall are no more favourable to speech than to string tone, and some of the more gabbled exchanges between the young lovers must have been difficult to catch for those at the back. But the spirit came over well enough.

Ivan Fischer conducted, securing buoyant rhythms and crisp cues, though he could not always mitigate some unusually insecure intonation from the wind players. The lovely hand-horn solo at the start of the Nocturne was a particular casualty - might this not, by 1843, have been played on an early valve-horn? However, the 12 voices of the choir contributed prettily to the whirring setting of "Ye spotted snakes", and the ending, where Mendelssohn layers a sprightly setting of the fairy epilogue over the rustling strings brought back from the overture.

The chief joy was to hear, for once, such less familiar bits as the frissons for Puck's entries and exits; the lost lovers' intermezzo of alarms and excursions; and the cod-funeral march for the deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe, where Mendelssohn seems to anticipate the sardonic spirit of the young Mahler.

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